NEWARK, Del. — Penn and Delaware are separated by 42 miles, but there wasn’t much of a difference between the way the two teams played Saturday afternoon.
In a tightly contested season opener, Penn football ultimately fell to the No. 20 Blue Hens, 28-27. A failed two-point conversion attempt after a punt return for a touchdown ultimately ended up costing the Red and Blue (0-1) the victory.
In the pair's first matchup since 1983, Delaware (3-1) struck first as quarterback Nolan Henderson led a picture-perfect five-play, 72-yard drive capped by a 29-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Thyrick Pitts.
On the Quakers' opening drive, senior quarterback Nick Robinson missed senior running back Karekin Brooks on a routine screen pass that resulted in a fumble. The Quakers punted back to Delaware, who promptly marched down the field thanks to big gains by running back Andre Robinson.
"We had some miscues — some false starts, some delay of game penalties — and we also had a high snap, which is one too many," coach Ray Priore said. "At the end of the day, this stuff gets better as you play more football. It's hard to iron out these mistakes in practice because you're just not in a real game situation."
Penn’s fortunes changed, though, after Delaware failed to convert a 39-yard field goal. Then, Robinson — shaking off a rough first drive — led a 78-yard drive full of big plays. Robinson found sophomore wide receiver Ryan Cragun for a 27-yard gain while adding a 19-yard run of his own. He capped off the drive by rolling out of the pocket and throwing a four-yard touchdown to senior wideout Kolton Huber to even the score.
Delaware couldn’t do anything with the ball after getting it back, as junior defensive lineman Benji Mowatt sacked Henderson to force a three-and-out. On the ensuing drive, Brooks helped lead the Quakers into enemy territory, but the Blue Hens were able to intercept Robinson to regain possession.
After forcing another Delaware three-and-out, junior running back Isaiah Malcome ripped off a 46-yard run and capped off another successful series with a one-yard touchdown reception to give the Quakers their first lead of the afternoon. The Red and Blue continued their stout defensive performance throughout the first half and entered the locker room with a 14-7 lead.
Coming out of the break, Penn’s offense didn’t miss a beat. Robinson lofted a deep ball over the middle to Cragun for a gain of 32 yards on the first play of the half, and he threw a 12-yard fade pass to Huber to extend the lead to 14.
The Blue Hens have scored 76 of their 97 points after halftime this season, and their second-half heroics were on full display against the Quakers. Led by Henderson, the home side rattled off two straight touchdowns while keeping Penn at bay to close out the third quarter all square.
In the middle of the fourth quarter, Pitts then beat his man for a 45-yard gain on the third play of a long Blue Hens drive, and Will Knight punched in a six-yard run as Delaware regained the lead.
But Penn wasn't done just yet, and got some help from its special teams down the stretch. Isaiah Malcome split two defenders on a punt return and found himself in the end zone with the Quakers ready to tie the game. With the game on the line, the Red and Blue elected to go for the two-point conversion, but Robinson threw a low incomplete pass and Penn remained behind.
"We knew it was gonna be a tough day today, so we needed to play to win," Priore said. "At some point or another, we had to score more points than they did, and we felt like going for [the two-point conversion attempt] was the right decision."
Attempting an onside kick, senior kicker Drew Brennan booted the ball out of bounds, giving the Blue Hens the opportunity to run out the clock and clinch the win.
Though the Quakers lost, the team excelled in a number of areas. Penn tallied 465 total yards of offense. Brooks added 158 yards on the ground, Robinson threw for three touchdowns, and Cragun caught eight passes for 145 yards in his collegiate debut.
"[Cragun] did his job. He was open," Robinson said. "Ryan is a great player, and last year even though he played on the scout team, we liked what we saw from him. I thought he did a great job today and translated his skills to real-game situations."
The Red and Blue will look to rebound in another non-conference game next Saturday against Lafayette, whom they edged in their last meeting in 2013.